Write First! Use the Early Morning to Get Your Writing Done

Jon Kabat-Zinn devotes a section of his mindfulness manual Wherever You Go There You Are: Mindfulness Meditation in Everyday Life to the importance of scheduling meditation practice in the early morning. Kabat-Zinn touts the solitude of the hour, the contemplative quiet, the importance of having at least one aimless portion of the day not devoted to marking To-Do items off the never-ending list.

In agreeing with this, I’d add that we creative types benefit not just from an early morning meditation session, the early morning is also an optimal time for creative work. Understand that I offer this both as the possessor of an ever-restless mind and as a former unrepentant night-owl.

I was in grad school when I recognized my night-stalking habits weren’t going to work.

During my undergrad years, my best studying and paper-writing and critical thinking used to fire-up about 9 PM. I wouldn’t quit until 1 or 2 the next morning. And when I started my fiction writing habit during Junior year, I shoe-horned my writing time before or after my studies depending on my workload. This worked fine for the short stories we would workshop – I didn’t have high expectations for my output (other than the certain belief that a literary agent would discover me any day and publish my works before I left college). But there was no way I could have constructed the longer works I truly wished to write.

Anyway, I hadn’t anticipated how demanding grad school would be. The sheer amount of reading exhausted me and made fiction writing impossible to schedule with any reliability. My work and home schedules also conspired to make maintaining my favored night-owl ways impossible – I could no longer get away with working until 2 AM and rising at 10 AM. I was forced to do more of my paper-writing and studying during the day, and I found that by evening, I was spent. My creative writing suffered.

I studied fiction writing with Richard Cortez Day, and he had many times touted the virtues of writing first thing in the morning. His usual routine—if I remember correctly—was to write from 5 AM – 9 AM and then he would close his office door and focus on his non-writing life, as well as his day-job as a professor.

There are many advantages to writing in the morning: Your mind is still in a partial sleep/dream state, which finds your inner critic a bit too froggy-voiced to flood your mind with enervating doubt. Most of the people in your life* don’t want anything to do with you at 5 AM (*this is untrue if you have small children, I have since learned the hard way). And most importantly, you get to do the thing you love most right away – you don’t have to wait until you’ve worked your day job or until you’ve cleaned the house or until you’ve had dinner with your spouse.

Waking and writing is a convenient way to be selfish, and as every writer knows, being selfish is the only way to carve out the time we need to get those words down.

So about two months into my grad school ‘career,’ I began my regimen of waking up at 5 AM.  But first I needed to also wade into the Addiction Waters I had avoided much of my early adult life and take on what I knew was going to be as much a habit as my writing: I needed to start drinking coffee.

Quaffing coffee was the only way I was able to convert myself from a night-owl (oh how I miss those blissful hours between midnight and 2 AM) into a morning person* (*I’m still not much of a morning person). On the days when my passion for writing wavered before the wanton influence of a warm bed and more sleep, the aroma of a fresh brewed pot sung out to my groggy body and enticed me into the kitchen. And soon after, the writing table. (For the coffee snobs among us, I admit that my coffee preparation has matured to the pour-over method using only fresh ground beans. To those who care, these admissions are important. Snobbery thy name is coffee drinker.)

Back to the writing. In short my Pavlovian plan of pairing a coffee addiction to my writing worked, and I transformed myself from late-nighter to early riser. I still, to this day, write first. There is great comfort in knowing that when my family awakens, I’ve already committed myself to centering my thoughts and putting words to the page. Much of the stress I once felt about getting tasks done before I could write has disappeared.

So, if you find yourself struggling to find space and time to create, I humbly offer the early morning option as a means to get your work done. The coffee addiction is optional. 

Influences - In Search Of

"This series presents information based in part on theory and conjecture. The producer's purpose is to suggest some possible explanations, but not necessarily the only ones, to the mysteries we will examine."

Ironic how the disclaimer that led off one of the GREATEST TV SERIES OF ALL TIME would also apply to writing fiction. 

For those of you who don't know there was, in the late 70s and early 80s, only one show that dared to address questions that your typical eight year old would consider vital: Does Bigfoot exist? What exactly is in Loch Ness? Was there really a Wolf Man?

Yes, only one show scared and enthralled, captivated and horrified, like In Search Of

Hosted with the just-right gravitas of Leonard Nimoy, whom I was aware of thanks to Star Trek reruns (plus the animated Star Trek series), In Search Of struck the essential balance between hokey and frightening that any kid (and I suppose adult) would find intoxicating. I mean, what other shows at the time seriously examined the possible existence of, say, UFOs with a combination of found footage, interviews with 'experts' and re-enactments?

That's right. None.  

I've made mention on this site and in my blog about how much my aesthetic was shaped (i.e., twisted) by the syndicated episodes of The Twilight Zone. I had almost forgotten about TTZ's shadow twin In Search Of. Interestingly, Rod Serling hosted the first In Search Of documentaries and would have continued to do so for the series proper had he not passed away. No further pop culture blessing need be applied, thank you very much. 

I suppose one could quibble about the, well, factual accuracy of the show. One could throw around words like 'scientific method' 'evidence' 'proof' if one wanted to be an absolute kill-joy. That's missing the point. Setting aside the dangers that some folks will believe anything they see on TV (which is admittedly a pretty massive set-aside) In Search Of's greatness resided in its ability to instill wonder and awe in the world around us.

Who doesn't want to believe that, just down that way, there is a Bermuda Triangle that will slurp you into a trans-dimensional vortex? I mean, come on. 

And I have to admit that even as an adult I'm still intrigued by a story like the one about Coral Castle. It's just so...odd and magical. 

Thank you You Tube. And thank YOU In Search Of.

Influences - OK, Carver

Raymond Carver's influence on the modern short story form is undeniable, and his ghost still haunts the current creative writing classroom, although from what I can glean from the all-mighty interwebs, his influence in literary circles is perhaps on the wane.

For those unfamiliar with Carver's work, he is a short story writer whose dominant years were the late 70s through the late 80s. Carver only wrote short stories, and he typically used the Pacific Northwest as his backdrop. He is most often associated with the term 'minimalism' which is both a problematic term and a faulty literary movement. But let's say that most of his fiction, under the influence of his editor Gordon Lish, attempted to show as much about its subjects through what was not on the page as the words that were printed there.

Minimalism is the literary equivalent of a painter using negative space to create an image, if that makes sense. 

My own intersection with Carver's works began when I studied under Richard Cortez Day while attending Humboldt State University. Carver too studied under Day before Carver migrated with his family to Chico State where he apprenticed under John Gardner. As a beginning writer, I was presented with Carver's stories as exemplary artifacts of the short literary form. That Carver was a 'native son' increased his significance.

The problem is that bad Carver is really bad, and for all the writing contests that try to mimic for laughs what we'll call 'Bad Hemingway' there could be just as many contests for 'Bad Carver.' His style almost demands mockery.

The shameful reality is that Carver himself was as hemmed in by his own growing literary legacy as the rest of us. In her excellent biography of Carver titled Raymond Carver: A Writer's Life, Carol Sklenicka unpacks the complicated Carver/Lish relationship and portrays Lish as the proponent (perhaps even culprit) of a minimalist style that sometimes pared so much of Carver's text away, meaning was lost. My personal favorite passage from the book is this quote from writer Charles Baxter, who kept a copy of the Lish-dominated What We Talk About When We Talk About Love on his desk as "an example of what I did not want to do....I loved the book. But I hated it too."

Baxter was brave enough to articulate what readers and writers alike feel when taking in the early Carver stories: there's something off about them. A quality that to me almost smacks of cheating. As if Carver didn't quite do all the work. It's not that excess verbiage was cut away, it's that the essential soul of a given piece was brutally hacked off. We know how much Carver struggled to get his work done, what with his family commitments and his alchoholism, and we know that he at least fantasized about writing novels and other longer works, but some of the early stories feel undone, incomplete, dashed off, and there's this Emperor's New Clothes aspect where as the reader you feel like you are agreeing that a given story is great because that's what your professors and fellow students are telling you to feel.

Reservations aside, Carver is a great writer, and his literary reputation is deserved. There is no denying that he had his share of masterpieces: What We Talk About When We Talk About Love, Cathedral, Where I'm Calling From,  Errand. These are works that can stand with the best stories ever written, and they are the stories I reflect on as influencing my own development as a writer. When an artist can pair kitchen-sink realism with the transcendent, as Carver does with wonderful grace in Cathedral, well, that's all I need as both reader and writer.

I just wish, and I know that I'm not alone in this, that he we had gotten so much more from Carver before his death in 1988.  The works he did leave us are not enough.


Where You End and I Begin

Only a teenager can believe that s/he can live without contradiction. (Actually, it may only be male teenagers who believe this.)

As one of those male teens, I was convinced that I could live a life of transparent, open and steel-like purpose where I never, ever wavered from living my ideals, whatever those ideals happened to be. While it's difficult to remember why this need for rigid consistency was so very important to me, I still find artifacts of this desire in my thinking. 

After listening to a recent On Being podcast with Meredith Monk: http://www.onbeing.org/program/meredith-monks-voice/1398 I found myself stuck (once again) inside a contradiction. While I make my way through this world using words, words themselves constrain, limit and otherwise minimize our human experience.

I don't see a separation between my artistic and spiritual endeavors. One feeds the other in an endless feedback loop, regardless of the quality of the output. When I tried to give up writing (all artists give up from time to time; in fact, this waving of the white flag of surrender may be a necessary occurrence), my inquisitive spiritual drive went into neutral. Likewise, after the end of my first marriage years ago, I was writing a lot but I purposefully ignored any incantatory call from the larger world; I just couldn't tolerate spiritually-fraught ideas or dialogue. Such topics just pissed me off. 

Back to the limits of words (and with apologies to decades' worth of post-modern theory): our initiation into the language of our families is to name things. Mama. Papa. Etc. We take a million sensory inputs about an object and distill them to one or two words. This distillation is limiting to both the object that the person is trying to describe and to the person describing the object. 

To get past our preconceived notions of things, including our understanding of ourselves, we would be best served bypassing words altogether.  

And that would be great, if I wasn't a writer.  A writer who, you know, uses words. A lot.

So there's the contradiction, perhaps even conflict, between my entwined artistic and spiritual endeavors. Words get us to the precipice, but to truly fly, we need to shuffle off these linguistic artifacts and dive into that which we cannot name and cannot describe in order to truly enter the present moment, naked to the raw experience of it. 

Perhaps my teenaged self was on to something. 


Influences - Gloria Naylor's 'Mama Day'

I have always favored fiction that possesses inherent strangeness and transcendence and mystery. I know part of that aesthetic is due to having grown up on comic books, old episodes of The Twilight Zone, my aforementioned love of Stephen King novels, and my own (overactive) imagination. Even the modernist writers I favor--say a William Faulkner--veer toward something Other (for lack of a better term) that isn't quite realism.

I first read Gloria Naylor's Mama Day as an undergrad taking one of those 'ethnic literature' courses that attempted to upend the dead-white-male literary cannon. There was more good than bad in the attempt for obvious reasons, but when selecting literature for such a course, it's easy to imagine the professor saying, "OK, we have our Asian, we have our Native American, now whom should we pick to represent African-Americans?"  

At the time (the wild and wonderful early 90s, he said with unadulterated nostalgia) if you wanted an African-American female novelist, the choices were two - Alice Walker and/or Toni Morrison. How or why my professor threw in Gloria Naylor, I will never know, but he did. And his was a brilliant choice.

It was one of those courses that we had too much to read in too little time, and I had originally skipped Mama Day because I figured I would focus on the books I was going to write my term papers about. I even sat through the Mama Day lecture, missing the point of it and not much caring. No, it was when we had started the next book that I picked up Naylor's novel and thumbed through it. Then, like that, I was hooked and everything else got shoved aside while I read Mama Day and nothing else. I think I may have even taken on Naylor's novel for my term paper, I was that crazy about it.

The folkloric backdrop, the magic realism (we weren't allowed to call novels fantasy in my program...at least not then), the in-your-face use of 2nd person narration alternating with a present tense 3rd person limited, and the characters--oh, the characters--make the novel not merely good but great. At that stage in my development as a writer (such that it was or is), I didn't realize how much I needed to see someone so masterfully weave the literary, the fantastic, and the human into such a powerful work of art. 

I knew then what I wanted my own novels to be like. 

I place Mama Day in the list of my top five favorite novels of all time. (Yeah, don't ask...I'll come up with the rest of my list someday.) The novel really is that good. Or wondrous strange as the family of one of my favorite painters liked to say about a piece of art that both fascinated and beguiled them.

You may be wondering why the qualification - why not just say that Gloria Naylor is an influence. I don't know her works as deeply as I do some writers, and although I enjoyed Bailey's Cafe, which was the follow up to Mama Day, I didn't find it as life-changing. (And really, can anything be as life-changing as the art we were exposed to in our early-twenties?) 

Gloria Naylor deserves more celebration and study than she was getting twenty years ago (Jesus, has it really been that long?), and from what I can tell by reading the all powerful Interwebs, she is almost criminally ignored in literary circles these days. Here's hoping that her fortunes change. The woman has the gift, and the world could use another masterwork like Mama Day.